Country report and updates: Singapore



1 Conscription

conscription exists

Conscription was introduced in 1967, shortly after Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965. The present legal basis of conscription is the 1967 Law on National Service.

Singapore's defence policy is founded on the concept of total defence. The guiding principle of total defence is that all Singaporeans have a shared responsibility in the defence of the country. Involvement of all citizens in the defence of the country is perceived to be essential by the Singaporean authorities, given the small size of the country. Total defence comprises psychological defence, social defence, economic defence, civil defence and military defence. [3]

Military defence, according to the Singaporean government, involves "maintaining the Singapore armed forces as a strong, alert and friendly armed force". [3]

Civil defence is meant to train and organise the population to respond at times of emergency. The civil defence force is a paramilitary force and has units in every constituency. It is 105,000-strong, most of its members being volunteers. In peacetime civil defence force members are trained in such emergency services as fire-fighting and running ambulances, but they also receive military training. [3] [4] [6]

military service

All men between the ages of 16 and a half and 50 are liable for military service. [3]

The length of military service is two years, and two and a half years for those above the rank of corporal. [3]

Reservist obligations apply until the age of 40, or 50 in the case of officers and those trained in some special occupations. Reserve service involves training and mobilisation exercises for up to 40 days annually. The service may be performed in the civil defence force. [3] [4] [6]

The reserve forces are 263,800 strong and are considered vital for Singapore's defence. In 1993 the government replaced the term 'reservist' with 'operationally ready national serviceman', in order to stress that reserve units are considered active units. 'Operationally ready national servicemen' who excel in fitness tests win money prizes. [3] [5]

postponement and exemption

There are no clear regulations permitting postponement and exemption. According to sect. 28 of the 1967 law "The proper authority may, by notice, exempt any person from all or any part of that service under the Act" (the term 'proper authority' meaning the military authorities). Regulation 25 of the enlistment regulations prescribed by the 1967 law further sets out the points to be taken into account when considering exemption applications: "(a) the requirements of the defence, economy and education system of Singapore; (b) exceptional hardship of the applicant or members of his household; (c) the extent to which the business responsibilities or interests of the applicant cannot be carried on his absence". [1]

It is not known just how these considerations are interpreted in practice and how often exemption is granted. Apparently exemption is only granted for medical reasons, for those having a criminal record and for those who can prove their enlistment would be a hardship for their family. [8]

The Singapore government has clearly stated: "No able-bodied Singaporean is exempted from National Service as every Singaporean benefits from the peace and security which National Service has helped to ensure". [3]


Registration for military service and call-up for medical examination take place at the age of 17 and a half. Call-up for military service is at 18. [3] [8]

Voluntary enlistment is possible from the age of 16 and a half. [3]

2 Conscientious objection

The right to conscientious objection is not legally recognized and there are no provisions for substitute service. [7]

According to the government: "All male Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion, are expected to do National Service to defend our country. Singapore cannot make exceptions for any group. No Singaporean should be allowed to cite any reason to exempt himself from having to contribute to national defence effort as every Singaporean benefits from the peace and security which National Service has helped to ensure." [3]

Many Jehovah's Witnesses are known to have refused to perform military service. They are usually court-martialled and sentenced to 12 or 15 months' military detention. They are then called up again. A second refusal to comply with military orders again results in arrest, charges, and custody pending a second court martial which leads to another two years' detention. This means the total punishment for refusing to perform military service amounts to three years' imprisonment. [2]

Since 1972 more than 100 Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned for refusing to perform military service. In 1997, 30 of them were in prison for such refusal, half of them serving a second sentence. [2] [8]

Since 1994 some Jehovah's Witnesses have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them on the basis of the guarantee of freedom of religion in art. 15 of the Singapore Constitution. Yet they have still been convicted and have received the longer initial 15-month sentence. By late 1995 none of those who had pleaded not guilty have been sentenced to further imprisonment lasting longer than 24 months. [2]

Since 1972 the Jehovah's Witnesses have been considered an illegal religious group by the Singapore authorities. The government decided they were a threat to law and order, although the real reason for the ban is thought to be the Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to perform military service. [2]

3 Draft evasion and desertion


Under art. 32 of the Enlistment Act evading military service is punishable by a 5000 USD fine and/or up to three years' imprisonment. Desertion is punishable by up to ten years' imprisonment. [7]


There are no known details about how many conscripts fail to respond to the call-up, nor how draft evasion is monitored in practice. The registration of liable conscripts has been computerized since the 1970s. [9]

Given the authoritarian nature of the Singaporean state and the harsh punishment of Jehovah's Witnesses, curbing draft evasion is believed to be quite rigorous. According to a 1989 source, all conscripts who have refused to register, who have absented themselves after registering or who have refused to comply with the requisite military service have been fined or imprisoned. [1]

5 History

Singapore was a British colony until 1959, when it became autonomous within the Commonwealth. In 1963 it joined with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah to form the Federation of Malaysia. Tensions between Malayans, dominant in the Federation, and ethnic Chinese, dominant in Singapore, led to Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965. Ethnic tension in Malaysia included the refusal of many ethnic Chinese to perform military service. (see: Malaysia)

Shortly after the separation from Malaysia the government decided that instituting compulsory military service was the best way to build up the country's armed forces. Government leaders were reportedly impressed by Israel's small regular armed forces, supported by a large reserve force, and believed that the development of this type of armed forces would encourage national pride and self-reliance. At that time Singapore had particularly strained relations with Malaysia and Indonesia. [9]

6 Annual statistics

The armed forces are 70,000-strong, which is 2.31 percent of the population. [10]

Every year approximately 24,000 men reach conscription age. There are 39,800 conscripts in the armed forces. [10]


[1] Regional Council on Human Rights in Asia 1989. ECOSOC, 28 November 1989. [2] Amnesty International 1995. Amnesty International condemns imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses. AI, London. [3] Ministry of Defence of Singapore 1997. National Service fact sheet 1997. [4] Ministry of Information and the Arts of Singapore 1993. Singapore 1993. [5] Interview with Lieutenant General Ng Jui Ping, in: Asian Defence Journal, 10/1994. [6] Narayanan, Arujunan 1997. 'Singapore's Strategy for National Survival', in: Asian Defence Journal, 1/1997. [7] Amnesty International 1991. Conscientious objection to military service. AI, London. [8] 'Prisoners for Peace Day Supplement', in: Peace News, December 1997, London. [9] US Library of Congress 1989. Singapore - a country report. Area Handbooks, State Department, Washington DC. [10] Institute for Strategic Studies 1997. Military Balance 1997/98. ISS, London.

Articles related to conscientious objection

11 Feb 2016

A conscientious objector leads an antimilitarist protest carrying a flag with WRI's broken rifle emblem in FinlandA conscientious objector leads an antimilitarist protest carrying a flag with WRI's broken rifle emblem in FinlandWith new sources of information, we've been able to update the prisoners for peace list with hundreds of more names from Singapore and South Korea, primarily Jehovah's Witnesses. The process of adding names of conscientious objectors to our database is ongoing. They include prison addresses, so please consider writing to an imprisoned CO over the year, not just on Prisoners for Peace Day!

There are over 700 COs in prison in South Korea at present.

See the full list here.